Cruising through Cuenca

CUENCA, Ecuador

Always looking for a party, Ramon joined us here in this large Spanish colonial city in the Andean highlands.

The 30-something school teacher from Bahia took  off work Friday and rode a bus for more than eight hours southeast to help us experience Cuenca.

Before we took in some Cuencan nightlife, we had a few drinks on the rooftop deck of our hostel.

I started an impromptu game of ¨Guess who?¨ or ¨Quien yo?¨

I kicked things off…

While snapping my fingers like I´m packing a tin of chew, I said ¨chucha,¨ or shit.

Pessa picked up on it in no time. It was Ramon.

Just like Orlando with ¨claro¨ or sure, Ramon would often say the swear word and do the snapping gesture in a joking manner and with a broad smile.

I went again…

¨La cuenta, la cuenta … [deep breath] … tranquilo, tranquilo,¨ I just repeated a quote from the dinner we had earlier in the night. ¨The check, the check …  [deep breath] … be calm, be calm.¨

Sarah won again. It was Ramon.

(Ramon´s mantra was ¨tranquilo¨ or calm and peaceful. At sunset, I routinely asked him how was his day in the classroom.  I always got the same answer.

¨Todo bien,¨ or everything´s good, he repeated and repeated.

Sometimes, however, he would be ever so slightly thrown off his tranquilo life.

One time, after we caught some fish in the Pacific, he cooked them for us. When the timing in the kithcen was slightly thrown off, he would say tranquilo, but his face said frantically impatient.

That example showed that his laid-back, coastal life wasn´t above hinderances and personal weaknesses. But, overall, his 98 percent positive attitude made me envious.)

Now back to the game Quien yo.

Wearing his trademark smile, Ramon began dancing with fingers snapping and elbows flailing.

¨Hmm,¨ I said ¨Sarah!¨

We all laughed; Pessa giggled and denied that she was that bad of a dancer.

Spanish Steps psycho

A daredevil made the curbside wait for Ramon´s friends far from dull.

Before heading to the bar, we stood across the street from one of Cuenca´s version of Rome´s Spanish Steps, 86 steps that lead down to a bubbling brook known as the Rio Tomebamba.

The cacophony of Cuencans mingling on the curbs and traffic slithering on the narrow streets became background noise when a guy in a black leather coat sped up the stairs on his blue dirtbike.

In his effort to turn around, his front tire hit the corner of the Indian restaurant across the street from us. (Not exactly the swift move of a seasoned Evel Knievel.)

At the time we didn´t know this was a stunt, and I thought he was going to continue on his way by using one of the conventional roads. Nope.

He rev´d his bike twice and disappeared down the staircase. Before I could make my way across the street to see the stunt for myself, I could hear his motor traversing the steps. Once I reached the top of the stairs, I saw that he had crashed before the final of three staircase.

We made our way down to the crash. A group of men had encircled the daredevil.

By the time we reached the crash site, he was back on his bike. With a kickstart, he zoomed off without an apparent scratch.

Artistic realism

A welcome and benign Ecuadorian man invited Paress and Laura to an artistic exhibit.  I tagged along. (Pessa was sick.)

The  artistic documentary was about how the U.S.-based South American Development Company exploited Ecuadorian workers and the land of gold in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Portovelo, Ecuador.

The artist, Tomas Ochoa, interviewed these retired miners, now centarians, about their experience in the mine.

The old men said they didn´t have a name in the mines and were identified by the number on the dog tags they wore. They were paid $1.20 sucres a day.

Ochoa asked one of the workers if there was any happiness at the mine.

¨Happiness? No,¨ said one of the men as he wore a wrinkly smile. ¨You would work hard for your bosses, but they were never satisfied.¨

The exhibit had three screens lined up next to each other. The left screen had the interviews of the old men. The right screen had images of the abandoned mine. The middle screen had a reinactment of how the men would rub the gold sludge on their bodies as they worked.

They did so ¨so they could keep for themselves something of this gold that they would see passing through their fingers but would never belong to them,¨ said an english brochure.

The other element of the display was company photos of the workers. Another artist sprinkled gun powder and slightly erased portions of the photos, in an effort to mask their clarity.

I interpreted the hazy faces of the workers as a representation of how the company erased their identity and solely refered to the men by a number. … No. 7046 for example.

It was a gripping experience that we would have missed if it weren´t for Rafael, the man Laura and Paress met. He is another example of the welcoming people in this country.

Our experience was exacerbated because we were a minority of three gringos.

Laura felt self conscious because we were Americans watching how our countrymen had exploited these affable men. We agreed that it was important to educate ourselves about the wrongs American capitalism reaped in the third world.

What planet?

Sometimes it seems the Lonely Planet guidebook was written on another planet.

On Saturday in Cuenca, we set out to see some of the cultural and artistic offerings this town of 400,000 is known for.

Our first destination was the Puente Roto, a broken bridge along the banks of the Rio Tomebamba that ¨make[s] a nice venue for an open art fair and cultural events every Saturday.¨

We got to the right location at the right time, but there wasn´t a person in sight much less a piece of art.

Cursing the book, we went to El Vado where, supposedly, there were ¨galleries, cafes, restaurants and artisanal studios specializing in everything from traditional embroidery to copperware to saddles.¨

We didn´t see any vibe or any sort of commerce.

I take that back. Pessa and Paress saw a few saddles.

Thanks, Lonely Planet.



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